Over the past decade, one major trend that came and went in the video game industry was the music rhythm game genre, specifically titles that relied on the use of plastic instruments to simulate playing instruments in game mode.
This was first seen with the initial release of Guitar Hero back in 2005 that galvanised the whole sub-genre with its plastic guitar instrument to the innovating attempt to ride the wave by expanding on the core experience of including other instruments such as Rock Band, to off-shoots of the genre such as DJ Hero which aims to emulate the rising trend of electronic music.
And while these games have garnered a fan base as they slowly become cult classics, the slow demise of the plastic instrument based music rhythm games was beginning to take its toll on the genre, and there were those who aimed to bring back the hype through titles such as Rocksmith and Rock Band VR, with the latter smartly integrating the use of an actual guitar to play notes in-game.
One such game that tried to bring back the original heights of the genre’s capabilities was Unplugged VR, released for the Oculus Quest 2 in late October 2021 with a release on PC VR later that December.
In its basic premise, Unplugged VR places players into the shoes of an unnamed guitar player who is just starting out, and is guided through the game’s mechanics by a disembodied mentor and real life professional guitar player Russ ‘Satchel’ Parrish from the American Rock Band ‘Steel Panther’.
What sets Unplugged VR apart from previous iteration in the music rhythm game genre that have come and gone is that, instead of the use of a plastic instrument to mimic a guitar, Unplugged VR uses the Oculus Quest 2 as well as the Valve Index’s controllers to track the player’s fingers and hands.
These result in players strumming in a way that is similar to that of an air guitar, where players not only pretend to play an imaginary rock styled electric guitar, but also these actions are taken with the fingering of the fret and strumming transfers, corresponding to the music played in the game.
Speaking of the music, the song list for Unplugged VR is also a treat for rock fans. From melodic Roadie by Tenacious D to more energetic and fast-paced pieces such as Overloaded by Bumblefoot, all the way to the iconic guitar solo of Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynyrd, with each song being equally paired with a variety of difficulties to cater to all players both new and experienced.
Players are able to play these head banging tunes and strum away using the surprisingly usable hand tracking, once players get used to it, which is able to detect most of the intended fingers on frets and strumming.
Though this is not without its downsides as the hand tracking also represents one of the game’s major flaws, as while it is accurate, being exclusively designed for hand tracking means that players will not be able to receive haptic feedback such as button presses and vibrations which, while minimal on paper, plays a big role in not only immersing players but also to relay back information taken by players in-game.
This means that setting up the virtual guitar and certain mistimed strums can be finicky to correct, resulting in occasional frustrating moments during gameplay, many which can seem to be out of the player’s control.
Unlike other VR games that rely on the use of controllers, Unplugged VR is also susceptible to drift where the play location is slowly shifting in real space, not only as each loading screen results in the game automatically recentering itself.
While on paper this seems useful at first, it can potentially be risky as each recentre can bring players closer to the boundary of the play area, heightening the chances for injury.
Another small gripe that plagues the game is the limited list of songs available. While each song chosen to be a part of the game is fitting for what the game aims towards being a rock-centric rhythm game, the total number of song only amounts to 21.
For context and comparison, the original Guitar Hero released in 2005 has a total of 41 songs – nearly double the track list found in Unplugged VR – with nearly all subsequent releases under the Guitar Hero franchise having continued to increase this number.
However, this might be remedied in the future as planned expansions and downloadable contents are in the works for Unplugged VR that aims to rectify this shortcoming.
Despite all its shortcomings, Unplugged VR is still a game worth experiencing not only in testing the new tech of hand tracking, but also to rock out to various music pieces that are sure to induce a non-stop head bobbing, which will most likely also result in an earworm that will have players humming to the tunes, waiting for an opportunity to jump back in with their virtual guitars.